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Palestinians rue hardships from fence

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A Palestinian walks in front of a new section of Israel´s security fence in the West Bank village of Eizariya, in November 2003. (Brian Hendler)

A Palestinian walks in front of a new section of Israel´s security fence in the West Bank village of Eizariya, in November 2003. (Brian Hendler)

BAKA AL-GHARBIYA, Israel, July 6 (JTA) — The home of Nidal Hussein in Baka a-Sharkiya is only 100 yards away, but it took him several days and more than 100 miles to get to the eastern outskirts of Baka al-Gharbiya, the Israeli twin of the Palestinian town. A 20-foot-high wall, the new de facto border between Israel and the West Bank, blocks Hussein’s access to his home. For years, Hussein worked in Israel proper and returned home every evening. However, for the past six months — since Israel erected the wall following several years of intensified Palestinian terrorist attacks — he no longer can get there so easily. Desperate for work, Hussein finds roundabout ways to get from his West Bank town to Israel. A month ago he managed to enter Israel through Jerusalem. After several weeks spent looking for occasional manual jobs, he relaxed with relatives in Baka al-Gharbiya, just across the wall from his residence. “They won’t let me return home through the checkpoint because I did not come in legally,” he said. “In other words, I am stuck in the middle.” The International Court of Justice at The Hague is set to rule on the legality of the security fence Friday morning. Though Palestinians say the fence imposes hardships on their lives, Israeli officials argue that it has reduced drastically the number of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks in Israel. In fact, many Israeli officials say the main reason for vociferous Palestinian opposition to the fence is the realization that it neutralizes their most potent weapon against Israel. Israel has said it will not abide by the court’s decision, arguing that the Jewish state hardly can expect a fair hearing before a U.N.-affiliated court that includes several judges from Arab countries who have expressed their dislike for Israel. Even after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000, the two Bakas virtually were one town. The main street connecting them hummed with commerce as vendors from the West Bank sold inexpensive products and buyers from Israel, including Jews, came to town for bargain shopping. All this changed with the murder of two Israelis in Baka in the early days of the intifada. The Jews stopped coming, business collapsed and the wall went up, cutting commerce and employment arteries, dividing families, separating farmers from their land and changing some lives, while likely saving others. In public opinion polls, Palestinians evince great support for terrorist attacks. But they are paying a bitter price as each attack, or attempted attack, has solidified Israeli support for the fence. “I grant you that the fence has proven itself in terms of daily security,” said Izz a-Din Majali, a manufacturer of agricultural hotbeds from Baka. “But at what price? The price of dooming the West Bank population to hunger.” Indeed, the road between the two Bakas now looks like a ghost town. Most of the cars belong to Jewish settlers entering the West Bank through the nearby checkpoint. Shops are deserted, as is a huge villa built by a local businessman who lost his money and could not complete the house. Construction work on the fence has been going at full speed, except for several stretches halted while Palestinian legal challenges are considered. Traveling the route of the fence from Jerusalem to Baka, one can see the bulldozers biting the ground, the huge cement blocks lying along the roads waiting to be shoved into place — and the Palestinians standing at checkpoints, eyeing the ongoing construction work, which is mostly carried out by Palestinians. One 20-mile stretch of fence near Jerusalem was halted last week by a ruling of Israel’s High Court of Justice, which ordered the route redrawn to minimize the hardship to local Palestinians. “For the first time in the history of the conflict, Israel’s High Court of Justice passed a ruling for the benefit of the Palestinians,” said cab driver Bassam a-Sheikh from the village of Bidu, just north of Jerusalem. Bidu villagers rejoiced over the decision, but it didn’t do much to help a-Sheikh: He was one of a number of cab drivers parked one recent day near an improvised barrier cutting off Bidu from Highway 443, which runs north of Jerusalem westward toward the coastal road. Though the Israeli court’s ruling seemed to justify those who said the fence harmed Palestinians, some sought to turn it to Israel’s advantage, saying it showed that Israeli courts could protect Palestinian rights without need for the International Court of Justice. In addition, the Israeli court rejected Palestinian claims that the fence was a political land grab, ruling that it was justified on the basis of security needs. According to Defense Ministry officials, Palestinians will be able to cross the fence at some 100 agricultural gates, 30 checkpoints, and five state-of-the-art border crossing terminals. By the end of July, the ministry hopes to be operating a terminal at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Jenin. The ministry will go out of its way to make the terminal look like an international border crossing between two countries.

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